The Next Gen racecar is the ideal vehicle for road course racers. With none of the asymmetry of previous car generations — vehicles optimized for only turning left — the new car upended the road course pecking order.
Road course ace Chase Elliott will watch this season’s first road course race from the sideline while recovering from a fractured left leg.
Elliott has won seven of the 25 Cup Series road courses races he’s run, giving him a win rate of 28.0%. That’s a little more than one win in every four races. He posts top-10 finishes 68.0% of the time.
In 2022, Elliott:
- led the most laps (121) at road courses
- led four of the six road course races
- led the most laps at three of the six road course races
But he didn’t win any of them.
Tyler Reddick won on two road courses, including his first Cup Series win on the way to a three-win season. Ross Chastain, Daniel Suárez, Kyle Larson, and Christopher Bell each won one race.
Winning isn’t everything… but it’s a start
The unusually high number of spins and tire/wheel issues last year means that finishes don’t always reflect how well a driver ran.
For example: Elliott led most of the first two stages at Sonoma but had to back up during a mid-race pit stop to retighten a wheel. His average running position was 2.2 before the glitch and 15.9 after. He finished eighth.
Despite not winning in 2022, Elliott still tied for the best average finishing position on road courses. The graph below shows all drivers with average finishing positions below 12 in 2022.
Of last year’s road course winners, only Reddick and Bell make the graph.
- Three finishes outside the top 20 drop Chastain’s average finish to 16.7.
- Sonoma winner Suárez had three top-five finishes and three finishes of 24th and worse for an average finish of 16.5.
- Although Larson finished third at Road America and won Watkins Glen, his other four finishes were 29th or worse. That averages out to 19.7.
That’s not to say these drivers aren’t contenders for a win at any road course race. But I’m more interested in the most consistent Next Gen road course racers.
Only four drivers have average finishing positions under 10: Elliott, Reddick, Chris Buescher and Austin Cindric. Michael McDowell is fifth on the list, 1.3 positions back from Reddick. Bell is 0.7 positions behind McDowell.
Going beyond averages
To gain insight, I examined driver finishes by track, as shown in the graph below. Average positions are represented by gray bars, with symbols showing individual race finishes.
This graph shows, for example, that Elliott had four top 10s and two finishes out of the top 15. Buescher had the same average finishing position but had five top 10s and one 21st-place finish.
Given the issues the new car introduced, this graph suggested that I give each driver a mulligan. So I also calculated the average of each driver’s best five road course races and summarized them in the table below.
Let’s look a little deeper into three of these drivers.
Buescher won the fall Bristol race and his name always comes up when talking superspeedways.
But the Next Gen car improved Buescher’s average road course finish by 3.1 positions relative to 2021. Buescher not only matches Chase Elliott’s average finish but beats Elliott in number of top-10 finishes.
If we throw out both drivers’ worst finishes — a 21st-place at COTA for Buescher and Elliott’s P20 at the Roval — Buescher beats Elliott in average finish position.
Cindric won four road courses in the Xfinity Series and posted the third-best average finish at road courses in his first Cup Series season. His 2022 performance included four top-10 finishes on the first four road courses of the season.
But even excluding his 21st-place finish at the Roval, Cindric remains ranked behind Elliott and Buescher.
Like Buescher, Cindric’s average running position is significantly higher than his average finishing position. That raises the interesting question of whether drivers advancing last year did so because they were better in the Next Gen car, or because other drivers had trouble.
Reddick finished 35th at Sonoma last year, 13 laps down. He had been running consistently in the top six before requiring a brake repair.
But Sonoma was Reddick’s only misstep. His other five road course finishes were all top 10s, including two wins. Excluding the Sonoma finish gives Reddick a 4.4 average finishing position for 2022 road courses — the best of any driver.
Reddick’s move from Richard Childress Racing to 23XI raises some questions about how his 2023 road course performance will compare with 2022. Excepting last week at Atlanta where an ailing Reddick finished fifth, Reddick has finished the same or worse than last year. And that’s with an additional year of experience in the Next Gen car.
It’s just as hard to predict winners this year as it was last year. But if you’re looking for drivers who can reliably finish in the top 10, these are the best choices.